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The nature of knowledge in web-based learning environments.


A number of pedagogical concerns have arisen as a result of student enabled instructive strategies. As more sources produce more information available in the online environment, the nature of knowledge becomes more relative. Students need to understand how to cope with that relativity by learning how to judge the credibility of online information, and how to participate in their own learning in web-based educational environments ethically and responsibly. A case study of a blended course provides the foundation for examining these issues. Recommendations are made for course design that include a grounding in epistemology.

Learning must be tied to one's own self and be built on real understanding. Understanding occurs when the foreign can be connected with what is already known. Knowledge has to touch oneself and one's own world in some way, without being enclosed and kept there.--Bernt Gustavsson, 2002, p. 18


The nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge and understanding are changing with the advent of the Internet. In particular, web-based instructional delivery has allowed educators to experiment with flexible, innovative, and progressive learning techniques. These techniques permit students to contribute to the learning process in new and active ways. But a number of pedagogical concerns has arisen as a result of student enabled instructive strategies; this study focuses on those concerns. A case study of a "blended" university course (campus-based and web-based instruction) provides the basis for assertions about ethical considerations for knowledge and learning in web-based learning environments. Specific claims regarding pedagogy, course design, and for the endeavor of learning and the nature of knowledge are discussed.

With the use of the Internet in general and web based learning in particular, we can take an active role in the creation of our own knowledge. Gatekeepers, whether they be mainstream media conglomerates or individual classroom instructors, play a smaller role in the acquisition of knowledge. For example, we use the Internet to research and diagnose illness (Fox & Ramie, 2002), and students participate in curriculum development in "active learning" ventures online (Pickering, 1995). Because individuals not only have access to online content but also the ability to produce that content, we are no longer strictly consumers of information, but producers of meaning. The ability of anyone with access to online technologies to be an authority, to be a publisher of fact, or to appropriate others' facts, exposes the frailty of knowledge in the information age. Thus, assessing the validity of information from all sources becomes more difficult as the nature of authoritative factual information is questioned (Sunstein, 2001; Lyotard, 1984). Moreover, knowledge is increasingly relative, as there are fewer (or no) gatekeepers when all are potential producers. This relativity of knowledge is illustrated in what Baudrillard (1994) termed "the hyperreal"--a cultural condition in which reality and truth are not distinguishable from the appearance of reality and truth. This situation has a potentially profound impact on the nature of web-based instruction and online learning. As faculty and students both interact online more often and rely on online sources of information more often, fundamental questions of authority, credulity, authorship, and ethics are raised.

When information is produced and distributed in authoritative ways by anyone, it is difficult to determine the relative value of one piece of information from another. This state of affairs has fundamentally changed students' and instructors' relationship to educational institutions. The process of education has become more learner centered, where the student is more involved in an interactive learning process (Hoffmann, 2002; Murphy, 2000). Professors are no longer the "sage on the stage." Educational research consortia, such as the Teaching, Learning and Technology Group based in Washington, claim that opportunities for individual learning are more prevalent than ever, and that students must take responsibility for their learning by being motivated, being conscious of their own learning, and being able to assess their own learning (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996).

There are some obvious ethical implications surrounding individual responsibility in learning and the potential relativistic nature of factual information in online texts. A proliferation of misinformation can result, and educators must scrutinize more closely the credibility of information, by, for example, considering the reputation of a source of information; whether a web site exists to support and further certain interests; and whether alternative sources can confirm the veracity of information. At the same time, web-based technology provides students greater opportunities for communal learning, both with one another and with faculty (Pickering, 1995). That means it is still incumbent upon individuals to engage responsibly in communal learning--a task made more difficult by the greater potential for relativistic information to circulate. Some potential problems that arise from this condition include:

1. Students can become skeptical of sources of knowledge until they feel no anchor of truth; some of them have difficulty ascertaining the value of online resources of knowledge and have also come to doubt the traditionally respected sources of information (for example, the Statistical Abstract of the United States).

2. Students may find nothing wrong with plagiarizing work from online sources. When all work is seen as equally valid or invalid, authorship may not hold much import. Witness the proliferation in instant term paper web sites.

3. Students are not often trained in the critical use of web resources, but instead are merely taught how to use the technology with the assumption that the technology will enhance their learning and empower them to find useful information.

4. The potential for web-based instruction to further student knowledge may be undermined by students' interaction with and approach toward online information.

To explore these problems, I submit my experiences teaching a blended course as a case study. The study method is based on Patron's (1990) and Stake's (1994) vision of qualitative case study as a means for illuminating a particular problem--in this paper, an educational problem involving the value of information and intellectual property. This study can be characterized using Stake's (1994) term instrumental case study, in which the case plays a supporting role, providing insight into a specific issue.

Case Study: Introduction to New Media

During the fall semesters of 2001 and 2002, I taught a blended course, Introduction to New Media, which serves as the foundation for the case study. Both semesters the course enrolled about 25 students (predominantly sophomores and juniors). The course is taught at a large, urban university with a diverse student population. Findings are based on the following factors: 1- observation of classroom behavior and discussion; 2- informal discussions with students in the class, outside of class, online, and at the conclusion of the semester; 3- assessment of student work; 4- assessment of my own ideas about online credibility. Repeatedly and in various words, I asked students to discuss the value of credible information in online environments and the nature of authorship. Most students had taken an online or blended course during their collegiate education.

Based on class discussion about validity and credibility of online information, most of the students during both semesters were unable to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sources of information. When shown satirical web sites (such as, during both semesters, approximately half of the students were able to recognize the site's facetious nature. Knowing that these students had already passed the required freshman English course containing a library instruction component, I had assumed a basic knowledge of source verification, primary and secondary information, and plagiarism. When asked, both in class and in online conversation, how validity and credibility of information from any source is verified, most students understood that mediated content is ostensibly verified in print and broadcast sources, but they assumed that same process of verification exists for online sources. They claimed that online content from institutional sources is subject to the same procedures of verification that traditional media information undergoes. One student said, "I believe online information is just as credible as newspaper information," referring to online content in general.

When informed that information from unestablished authorities online might be suspect since anyone with access to the Internet can produce knowledge, students were largely unconcerned. Several students observed that erroneous information is eventually exposed for its lack of credibility. This attitude contradicts their inability to recognize implausible information online. But, this observation follows Perry's (1970) scheme of epistemological development, which finds that many college students can recognize multiple points of view and the absence of definitive answers. This stage of epistemological development is characterized by student acceptance of all opinions as equally valid; thus students may tend to be indecisive or lacking in commitment. In the next stage of epistemological development, students accept the notion of ephemeral and contextual knowledge and often question the nature of authoritative knowledge (Perry, 1970). Marra (2002) suggests that these students can be taught in online environments to grasp the value of evidence in constructing a valid argument through "constraint-based" online discussion tools. This is a method of constructed conversation in which constraints are imposed on argumentation style, and students must use alternative modes to construct arguments, represent knowledge, and build understanding.

During the first semester of the class, some students did papers on Internet addiction in which they described treatments that were suggested by online sources that did not have approval from any psychologically or medically recognized authority. Students seemed to find this information valid. Based on this assignment and on my observations of student remarks both in class and online regarding the nature of authorship, I conducted searches using Google and (now defunct) to detect plagiarized material. I found several instances (about six) of plagiarism in research paper assignments in this course and in several others. When confronted about this infringement, each student professed ignorance of the basic rules of research and citation, arguing that information that is "published" in any source is free to be used without attribution. A discussion about intellectual property and authorship convinced them somewhat about the ethical breach, although two students retained a cavalier attitude about plagiarism. For the second semester of the course, I changed the structure of assignments so that students would not submit research papers due to both student attitudes about the value of information and to the instances of plagiarism (from online sources) I discovered in this and other classes.

Clearly, this case reveals that students have a complex relationship with online content. On one hand, these students find most sources to be equally valid and credible. On the other hand, they harbor an abiding skepticism about all institutional sources of information. This seeming contradiction produces some behaviors that violate traditionally accepted norms of the educational process (for example, plagiarism) and raises questions about the nature of knowledge within higher education. Educators involved in online learning must recognize that curricula need to employ an awareness of the philosophy of knowledge in order for students to participate fully and ethically in the learning enterprise.


In order to suggest some strategies for managing student approaches toward information credibility and authorship, we must briefly consider the prevailing ideology of technology in education. The perceived importance of computers and other information technologies at all levels of education is driven not primarily by pedagogy, but largely by the ideology regarding the significance of technology in society. Justifications for using computer technology in education relate predominantly to institutional beliefs about the worth of computers for future job success and economic prosperity, as well as their symbolic importance as emblematic of both the future and progress. The government endorses online technologies as avenues to success in the twenty-first century (U.S. Department of Education, 1996), and schools themselves create and circulate ideologies embracing technology by training students to use the Internet and computers. Ultimately, students, educators, and the public accept these beliefs in progress through technology. This ideology of progress through technology in education coupled with questions surrounding the potential relativism of information propagated in online texts provide us with food for thought regarding our own approaches to teaching with technology and our own responsibilities to our students.

Educators cannot allow the narratives of progress to overshadow critical judgment and traditional curriculum concerns in the development and implementation of online learning courses. Much knowledge is indeed relative, and most contemporary theories of pedagogy reject the notion that one overarching truth exists, however, some sources of knowledge are more critically valid than others. Educators would do well to recognize this relativistic turn and introduce strategies for enhancing not only the way students interact with information online but also the way students and faculty interact with the mechanisms of online learning. Thus, web-based courses should incorporate an examination of the philosophy of knowledge into basic course design. This might include brief units on the verification of information, epistemology, and academic ethics, which can be easily integrated into the overall course content. As a supplement to understanding argumentation and its relation to knowledge and understanding, Marra's (2002) suggestion for the use of "constraint-based" online discussion tools could be implemented. Additionally, Goldman (1999) advocates a similar strategy of norm-controlled deliberation to promote a social, process-driven knowledge for the information age. These considerations promote a focus on the practice of learning, not merely the substance of learning, and they encourage a respect for knowledge as a value.

When students direct their own learning in more concrete ways through web-based instruction, faculty must incorporate pedagogical tactics that prepare students to encounter information and knowledge in their variant forms. In general, students must write more frequently and work more independently in web-based courses, hence they tend to recognize their role as active seekers of knowledge (Canada, 2000). Web-based curriculum design should account for this and other characteristics of contemporary learners. Murphy (2000) and Ausburn (2002) found that today's students are inclined to need more motivation to learn; they often learn by experimentation and involvement rather than through traditional means of reading and listening. The online learning environment can account for contemporary student learning styles while still supporting pedagogical values such as critical analysis, adaptability, and intellectual rigor. This is critical when the student/faculty interaction is mediated by online technology. Web-based instruction offers profound possibilities for creativity, access, and equality in education--we must understand that concerns of epistemology and ethics need to be confronted in order to realize those potential benefits.


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Jan Fernback, Temple University, PA

Jan Fernback, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Broadcasting, Telecommunications and Mass Media. Her research interests include Internet culture and issues of free expression online.
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Author:Fernback, Jan
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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